This Minneapolis Activist Is Fighting To Change Policing in Her City

Supermajority Education Fund

July 20, 2020

As a longtime community activist, former candidate for Saint Paul city council, and current Vice President of Minneapolis NAACP, Anika Bowie is no stranger to fighting for equity for marginalized folks in her city. But the importance of that fight has been driven home in recent weeks amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and protests in reaction to the death of George Floyd have had on her community.

We are going through several multilayered challenges right now,” Bowie told Supermajority News, adding that both the pandemic and community uprising are bringing issues like health disparities and the impact of policing on communities to the forefront of the political conversation in Minnesota.

But Bowie has seen how those issues have shaped the Twin Cities firsthand for decades. She notes that in addition to being highly segregated, Minnesota is home to some of the starkest racial disparities in the United States. Those issues were among the reasons she decided to run for Saint Paul City Council last year — a race she lost, but an experience that furthered her belief in community building and advocacy. 

Supermajority News got to chat with Bowie about her work, the recent Minneapolis charter to defund police, and how activists are preparing to secure the vote for everyone in November.

What is it like right now in Minneapolis as the city continues to weather both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests connected to the death of George Floyd?

It’s been an uphill battle because we have the pandemic and the civil uprising, and we have also have the fight with our state reps in the Senate over removing the police department from the city charter. So these are all very multilayered issues.

Can you tell us more about the fight to remove the police department from the city? 

The new proposal would eliminate the police department as far as being a police department and add a department called the “law enforcement services” division. None of the officers would be terminated [with this shift], but they would be under the oversight of the City Council. A civilian review board would also be responsible for appointing and hiring a public safety violence prevention director, who would essentially serve as the police chief.

This proposal to revise the city charter is getting a lot of attention right now. When did community advocates begin pushing for these changes?

This discussion about community policing has been a long fight, and it began when officers were first placed inside Minneapolis Public Schools. There were multiple different people in the community — including activists, students, teachers, and parents who didn’t feel comfortable having their kids in classrooms with police officers in the school.

For about ten years in both my professional experiences and my activism, there’s been a demand to remove the officers, who are known as school resource officers, or SROs, out of schools. Currently, public schools are able to contract with a police department to hire an SRO, and those officers actually get paid a lot more to be inside of the schools than they would if they were working as regular police officers. But instead of hiring these SROs, we should be putting our money into getting more counselors and grief and trauma specialists to support the students who may be going through crisis.

You have also worked extensively on voting rights issues over the years. When did you first become passionate about the right to vote?

My personal dedication to these issues comes from being the granddaughter of people who didn’t get their right to vote until their late 50s. In that way, a lot of my advocacy hits close to home. I am part of the Obama generation — he was elected when I was in high school — so I was able to see that progress in terms of who we elect and the face of politics is possible when people mobilize.

But while I was able to vote, I realized that many people don’t have that right, and that was really startling to me. I kept thinking about the legacy of the suffrage movement and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. The right to vote was something that people had dedicated their lives and blood, sweat, and tears to. But we still live in a democracy that doesn’t include everyone.

I’m part of the leadership team of the NAACP in Minneapolis, and we have a strong partnership with the ACLU and Common Cause Minnesota. We just lifted up the banner on Restore the Vote [a campaign to allow formerly incarcerated people to vote] because we thought it was the most democratic thing to focus on. People who vote are people who have a stake and people who are less likely to cause harm in our society because they have a way to be involved and have their voices be heard.

You ran for City Council recently. What conversations were you having with the community about voting?

While running for office and door knocking, I would hear from so many people, no matter what race they were white, Black, Asian — and they’d say things like, ‘Oh, I can’t vote because I have a felony.’ In Minnesota, you can’t vote if you are on probation or parole, but people with felonies can vote if they aren’t on probation or parole. But since our government doesn’t really make it clear that these people have voting rights, there is a lot of room for error, and they avoid voting because of it. It’s this kind of misinformation that usually keeps people from the polls.

Have community members also been asking you about voting by mail and other provisions because of the pandemic?

Yes, many people are wondering about that. With COVID-19, a lot of our elders and people with compromised immune systems are probably going to use mail-in ballots. But one of the requirements in Minnesota is that they are required to have a witness sign off on their mail-in ballot before they send it in. This means that people who live by themselves and who don’t want to expose themselves in order to get their ballot signed by a third person have a complicated time voting.

The NAACP is involved in a lawsuit to get that provision removed because so many people have questions about it. There is also the issue of some people being highly mobile and who might not have a mailing system available to them. But the polls will also be open and will be implementing plans to maintain social distancing. 

The technicalities of getting people to vote have always been an ongoing thing organizers have had to address, but I think that right now, people are getting bombarded with so many mixed messages and political ideologies that we are just having an explosive response to all of the chaos going on.

You’ve also been working on getting more women elected in Minnesota. I recently read that there has never been a Black woman elected to the Minnesota State Senate?

That’s correct. But right now, we have four Black women running for the State Senate, and it is amazing. Many of the women who are running for Senate right now are moms, and they decided that this is the time where we stand up and rise up for what we believe in and mobilize people to make a difference. This is not a moment; it is a movement. I am a strong believer in [that] if you can’t change the laws, then it is time to change the lawmakers.